WHO IS “ALL ISRAEL” IN ROMANS 11:26?—Part 1

Introduction

I thought this would be a fun topic for a blog post because Michael and I have had some good interaction on the subject. In this first post, I want to present the three positions that scholars on Paul have taken in answering this question of how Paul thought all Israel would be saved. So that the reader will know where I’m going, I state up front that I hold to the third view. In my next post, I will provide the main lines of justification that convince me that this view is correct, while acknowledging the helpful insights of the other two views for understanding the broader section of Rom 9–11.

Some readers of the Bible may not realize the options that are available to interpreters when approaching Paul’s expectation of the eventual salvation of a group he calls “all Israel” in Rom 11:26. This was sort of a none question in the church where I first began to study the Bible theologically. It was a very popular-level dispensational church where “Israel always means Israel.” However, it doesn’t take too much critical reading to realize that this is not actually the case. There are numerous instances in the NT where authors apply OT passages about the nation of Israel to Jesus and his people, the church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. So, simplistic answers that avoid engagement with Paul’s context and the views of scholars cannot be taken for granted.

Survey of Interpretations

In the history of interpretation, there are basically three positions that interpreters have advanced. I have actually held each of these at one time or another, so I’m happy to say that I have almost certainly been right at one time or another! (unless there is another possibility that I am unaware of) Each of these positions is founded on valid observations from the larger context of Rom 9–11, so each needs to be considered carefully.

(1) The Church View: Some have taken “all Israel” as the church, made up of Jews and Gentiles, who in this age are being gathered into the fold of God’s saved people in Christ. This has been the view of notable interpreters in church history, such as John Calvin (although he seems to hold it in concert with the third view). The most prominent proponent of this position today is N. T. Wright (see his Romans commentary in the New Interpreters Bible, The Climax of the Covenant, and Paul and the Faithfulness of God). The primary basis for this position is that in Rom 9:6–8 Paul explicitly says that one’s ethnicity is not what makes one “Israel.” Rather, one is a descendant of Abraham not on the basis of such fleshly considerations, but according to promise. Elsewhere Paul says that all, both Jews and Gentiles, are Abraham’s children—i.e., true “Israel” (e.g., Rom 4:12, 16; Gal 3:7­–9, 29; Gal 6:16). Moreover, Paul goes on in Rom 9:24–26 to identify both Jews and Gentiles who have been called effectually into Christ as the fulfillment of Hosea’s prophetic expectation of Israel’s restoration after covenant judgment. So, it would be quite consistent if Paul has this same notion of Israel in mind in Rom 11:26. It is also noted that Paul’s Greek in Rom 11:26—and in this way (καὶ οὕτως) all Israel will be saved—isn’t normally used in a temporal sense (“and then”), but instead it suggests that the context is concerned with the way God will keep his salvific promises to Israel. Thus, v. 25 says that Israel has been hardened so that the fullness of the Gentiles will come into the covenant, v. 26 then says this is how Israel will be saved, that is, through the salvation of the new Israel, the church made up of Jew and Gentile in Christ. However, this view is not widely held by interpreters of Paul because, I think, it neglects the flow of Paul’s argument in Rom 11, which we will discuss on the next post. It seems to suggest that since Paul identifies Israel as the church in some sense in Rom 9:6ff, he cannot employ an ethnic definition of Israel later in Rom 11, even though the broader context Rom 9–11 is concerned with the apparent discrepancy between Paul’s Gospel and the small number Jews who have embraced Jesus as Messiah (Rom 9:1–7; 10:1–4; 11:7; etc). As I will try to show in the next post, Paul’s discussion of God’s faithfulness to Israel, which is the undisputed subject taken up in Rom 9–11, is complex and cannot be subjected to the kind of reductionism this view seems to be guilty of (as I too used to be guilty of, and which my friend, Mr. Metts still is!).

(2) The Remnant View: Another view makes much of the more of the immediate context of the earlier part of Rom 11, where Paul says God has kept his promises to ethnic Israel, Abraham’s physical descendants, by saving a remnant in his day, as God had done in the time of Elijah, and of which Paul himself is evidence (vv. 1–6). Thus, just as God in Paul’s age had saved a remnant, he will continue to extend saving grace to a remnant of ethnic Israelites throughout this age, and this is how all Israel is saved. Although this view seems to have strong contextual support, it is rarely advanced by scholars whose expertise is Pauline exegesis. Well-known advocates of this interpretation include Herman Bavinck, Louis Berkhof, O. Palmer Robertson, and Herman Ridderbos. The most recent scholarly treatment that takes this position which I have been able to find is an article by Ben L. Merkle (“Romans 11 and the Future of Ethnic Israel,” JETS 43/3 [2011]: 709-21). Like the previous view, this one is founded on a valid observation in Paul’s answer to the ‘elephant in the room’ problem of Israel with his Gospel. However, this view too, I believe, ultimately proves to be an insufficient explanation of Paul’s argument as it progresses through the chapter.

(3) The Ethnic View: The final view is that the salvation of “all Israel” in Rom 11:26 reflects Paul’s belief in a future large-scale conversation of ethnic Israelites to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Least those skeptical of this view object too quickly, it needs to be noted that this is not a view unique to dispensationalists. In fact, there are prominent theologians and commentators from every theological tradition who have strongly advocated this position. So, this is not an interpretation that commits one to the distinctives of dispensationalism, unless we want to label folks like the great Reformed theologian John Calvin, the editors of the Geneva Bible, or the great Roman Catholic scholar Joseph Fitzmyer as dispensationalists. In addition, this is the view you will find most often advanced in the standard commentaries by Bruce, Cranfield, Dunn, Jewett, Longenecker, Moo, and Schreiner, just to name a few. Also, the work of J. Ross Wagner should be mentioned here, because he has done extensive and influential work on this question and lands on this view. When I first began studying the Bible theologically, this was my default position because I was in a very dispensational church. Eventually, I embraced the first position because of the force of Rom 9:6ff. However, due to some continuing research and study, as well as an exegetical course in seminary on Romans, I began to favor the second position, but only for a short time. Then, when this topic came up during a class I had on the historical Jesus with Darrell Bock, he put some challenging questions to my exegesis that made me go back to the drawing board and think through Paul’s argument more carefully. This brought me back full-circle to this third view, but without some of the theological baggage of my former dispensational assumptions.

In my next post, I’ll explain what specifically has led me to come back to embracing the view that Paul believed in a future mass conversion of ethnic Israelites.

 

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The Importance of Jesus Tradition in Understanding Paul

Kathy Ehrensperger writes

I consider it a necessary and fruitful enterprise to explore the significance of such research results that demonstrate Paul’s embeddedness in Judaism when dealing with the issue of the relation between Jesus and Paul, or, to put it another way, of the relation of the Jesus traditions as remembered in the Gospels and the Jesus as remembered by Paul and his team in the Pauline Letters.

So thrilled to read this in her essay “At the Table: Common Ground between Paul and the Historical Jesus.” I have earlier voiced the opinion that Paul’s theology be thought of first and foremost as influenced by and indebted to Jesus traditions (since the Gospels were written after most/all of Paul’s Letters). I think that the recent push to read Paul within Second Temple Judaism broadly will be misguided insofar as it ignores this foundational hermeneutical task in understanding his thought. So in some respects, Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which sees Pauline theology as a brand of Second Temple Judaism richly rethought around Jesus Messiah, is a step in the right direction. Ehrensperger’s essay in Jesus Research volume two continues by pointing out the rich agreement between Jesus tradition in the Gospels and 1 Corinthians on the subject of table fellowship / meals.

A Brief Academic/Literary Biography of N. T. Wright

A BIOGRAPHY OF NICHOLAS THOMAS WRIGHT

N. T. Wright, if nothing else, is an impressive scholar. He has written extensively in New Testament studies and has received nine honorary Doctorate of Divinity degrees from various universities, including Durham and St. Andrews – the latter university is where he currently resides as Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity.[1] He is presently working on four extensive projects, one of which will be the fifth book in his highly acclaimed Christian Origins and the Question of God series and is due in 2014 or 2015; another volume will be a commentary on Philippians to be published in the International Critical Commentary (ICC) series, also tentatively due in 2014.[2] Recent publications have been an incredible sixteen-hundred page work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which was published in two volumes; this book was also co-released with a collection of essays, previously published by Wright on Paul, titled Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013; and further intended to be co-released is an almost four-hundred page work by Wright on recent Pauline scholarship titled Paul and His Recent Interpreters, now scheduled for November 2014. This amounts to about two-thousand five-hundred pages on Paul. Considering these recent labors it is nothing short of amazing that Wright is closing in on the quickly approaching publication date for the forthcoming fifth volume in the series covering the gospels.

There has not yet been a meaningful personal biography published of Wright though his curriculum vitae, which is available through his unofficial webpage ntwrightpage.com, reveals much about his scholarly life. His curriculum vitae does state that Wright is married (since 1971), and has four children and three grandchildren.[3] Wright was born in Northumberland, England on December 1, 1948.[4] He was primarily interested in classical literature and the New Testament as a young man, achieving a Bachelor of Arts in classics from Exeter College, Oxford in 1971. His second Bachelor of Arts, this time in theology, was awarded in 1973. This degree, completed at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, prepared Wright for ordination as a priest in the Church of England.[5] Both degrees were first class honors. Wright received the Master of Arts in 1975, presumably also in theology, and his Doctorate of Philosophy in New Testament at Exeter in 1980 under the famed professorship of G. B. Caird (whose influence on Wright’s work is still evident).[6] Wright’s dissertation, “The Messiah and the People of God,” argued for representative/incorporative messiahship in Romans.[7]

The Church and the Academy – Together

Wright ambitiously embodies a critical concern for bringing together history and theology,[8] and the academy and the church. In one brief autobiographical piece, he movingly writes that: “Alone, I continued to read the NT in Greek and the OT Hebrew day by day, constantly finding a combination of personal address and intellectual stimulation which I have never been able to separate. (I was once advised to keep separate Bibles one devotional and one ‘academic’. Fortunately I took no notice.)”[9] Wright’s concern for reading Scripture outside of any traditions drives his many fresh readings that so many find stimulating or frustrating depending on the vantage point.

Christian Origins and the Question of God Series

Early in his career Wright desired to write scholarly works on Jesus and Paul, but it became clear to him that to do so would require significant housekeeping. This is how Christian Origins and the Question of God got started. In the Preface to The New Testament and the People of God Wright states “The result is a project which, though still focused centrally on Jesus and Paul, is also inevitably about the New Testament as a whole.”[10] Because of the limitations of the present biographical sketch, each of the subheadings which follow afford only a short description for each volume in Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God series. Focus, therefore, is given primarily to each volume’s most distinctive features. Comments on Wright’s latest work Paul and the Faithfulness of God will be given in a later paper and are omitted here.

Story-Based Knowing

In volume one Wright fashions an impressive hermeneutical and historiographical methodology. Although subsequent volumes in the series elaborate on the narrative critical realism outlined in The New Testament and the People of God, the initial volume earned its distinctive place among all the rest for the method’s first presentation. Wright spends over one-hundred pages defining his methodology in Part II’s “Tools for the Task.” In sum, the method is a story-based knowing composed of both a literary-historical, narrative worldview synthesis and an epistemology which critically embraces the reality of external objects, objects truly existing external of sensory input, justifiably called critical realism: “…I suggest that we must articulate a theory which locates the entire phenomenon of text-reading within an account of the storied and relational nature of human consciousness.”[11] Further, “This critical-realist theory of knowledge and verification, then, acknowledges the essentially ‘storied’ nature of human knowing, thinking and living, within the larger model of worldviews and their component parts.”[12]

Return from Exile[13]

In the second volume of the series, Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright interprets a significant amount of the parables of Jesus within his famed return from exile motif, including the parable of the sower which is interpreted by Jesus already, but which Wright boldly corrects.[14] Jesus’ teachings on faith, repentance and the forgiveness of sins are additionally seen within the controlling narrative of return from exile;[15] and further seen through the light of his narrative retelling are the covenantal promise of a renewed heart and the Sermon on the Mount.[16]

Concerning the death of Jesus Christ, Wright explains that Jesus takes upon himself the vocation of Israel as identified in the servant songs of Isaiah. Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem committed to paying the steep covenantal price for Israel’s sins.[17] The intentional sacrificial death of Jesus in turn affects a new exodus for the true Israel, the Israel who is now regathered around and identified in Jesus Christ.[18]

“Transphysicality”

Volume three of Christian Origins and the Question of God is an incredibly rich seven-hundred page treatment of Jesus’ bodily resurrection from death. The Resurrection of the Son of God is considered by many to be the premier volume of the series in terms of importance – at least until 2013 – but also considered to be the most formidable defense of Jesus’ resurrection in at least a century. The book was originally planned as the final chapter of Jesus and the Victory of God but became too lengthy, requiring its own publication.[19]

Wright speaks of Jesus’ resurrected body using the invented term “transphysicality.” This term “puts a label on the demonstrable fact that the early Christians envisaged a body which was still robustly physical but also significantly different from the present one.”[20] Wright explains that for the evangelists the risen body of Jesus is able to do “some things that ordinary bodies do and other things that ordinary bodies never do.”[21] The gospels portray a Jesus who is “both recognized and not recognized, who comes and goes through locked doors, who is solidly physical, with wounds still visible, and yet who seems to belong in two dimensions at once.”[22]

 

NOTES

[1]Nicholas Thomas Wright, “Curriculum Vitae – Web Version,” accessed May 28 2014, http://ntwrightpage.com/NTW_WebCV.htm

[2]Ibid.

[3]Wright, “Curriculum Vitae – Web Version.”

[4]John J. Hartmann, “Nicholas Thomas Wright,” in Bible Interpreters of the Twentieth Century: A Selection of Evangelical Voices, ed. by Walter A. Elwell and J. D. Weaver (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999) 434.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Ibid.

[8]Stephen Neill and N. T. Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1986 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 366: “An understanding of history which is incompatible with a Christian doctrine of revelation is bound to land the New Testament scholar in grave perplexities; a true theological understanding of history would not of itself solve any New Testament problems, but it would, so to speak, hold the ring within which a solution can be found.”

[9]Tom Wright, “My Pilgrimage in Theology,” accessed May 29 2014, http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_My_Pilgrimage.htm.

[10]N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, vol. 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992) xiii.

[11]Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 61.

[12]Ibid., 45.

[13]It should be noted that Wright has conceded that his motif was too careless, at least for some parts of Jesus and the Victory of God; concerning the parable of the prodigal son he writes: “There, too, I allowed that parable to say more than it did on the lips of Jesus.” N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. 4 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 68.

[14]N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, vol. 2 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 230-9; “It will not do to object that, in the parable’s interpretation, the ‘seed’ is the ‘word’” (233). Surely it does!

[15]Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God; “repentance,” 248; “faith,” 260; “forgiveness of sins,” 268.

[16]Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God; “renewed heart,” 282-7; “Sermon on the Mount,” 289.

[17]Ibid., 553-611.

[18]Ibid., 557; 576-97.

[19]N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, vol. 3 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003) xv.

[20]Ibid., 477-8.

[21]Ibid., 609.

[22]Ibid., 609.

 BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hartmann, John J. “Nicholas Thomas Wright.” In Bible Interpreters of the Twentieth Century: A Selection of Evangelical Voices. Edited by Walter A. Elwell and J. D. Weaver. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.

Neill, Stephen, and N. T. Wright. The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1986. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Wright, N. T. “Curriculum Vitae – Web Version” [online]. Accessed May 28 2014, http://ntwrightpage.com/NTW_WebCV.htm.

_______. Jesus and the Victory of God. Vol. 2 of Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996.

_______. Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.

_______. “My Pilgrimage in Theology” [online]. Accessed May 29 2014, http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_My_Pilgrimage.htm

_______. Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Vol. 4 of Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013.

_______. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.

_______. The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993.

_______. The New Testament and the People of God. Vol. 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992.

_______. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Vol. 3 of Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003.

_______. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.